On April 10, 1944, the Germans who had the job of manning defensive positions in the Italian mountains found a new American outfit deployed against them—the 85th Division. It had been called the “Custer” Division ever since 1917, when its soldiers trained at Camp Custer, Michigan. By the time the 85th had bowled over the enemy defenders of the Gustav Line, of Rome, of the Amo River, of the Gothic Line, of the Po River, and of the Brenner Pass, far to the north, the Germans had a new name for the outfit.
They called it the “Elite Assault” Division.
In this war, there wasn’t any Custer’s Last Stand. Time after time the 85th found itself fighting against seemingly hopeless odds—and there were a few units that had bad luck, like the platoon that was found wiped out, with German bodies piled up all around it, during the breaching of the Gustav Line—but the Division kept on moving slowly forward during the long, grim, and sometimes heartbreaking Italian campaign. When it added up its prisoners after the Germans surrendered on May 2, 1945, the total came to 27,429.
The 85th began to arrive in Italy in the middle of March 1944, and by the end of the month the Division was assembled as a unit. Two weeks later it took over the Allied sector near Mintumo and found itself playing a prominent part in the Allied offensive to break through the Gustav Line, made contact with our forces hemmed in at Anzio, and raced to Rome. The attack began on May 11, and after four days of bitter initiation to war, the 85th had beaten off numerous counterattacks and had cracked the line. Speeding north, the Division trampled over the famed Hermann Goering Panzer Division, and triumphantly entered Rome on June 4. The 85th went right on oüt the other side of the city and pursued the Germans for 40 miles before being relieved.
The Custermen had it relatively quiet during the summer, but in mid-September they were given the job of hacking away at the German positions in the Gothic Line. The towering mountains at Altuzzo, Verruca, and Pratone were in their sector, and on September 17 Altuzzo, the keystone of the line, had fallen to the 85th. Speeding on to the north, the Division chased the Germans for 45 days of running fighting, through the Santemo River Valley, across many mountains, and onto the slopes of Monte Mezzano, at the threshold of the Po Valley.
Early in 1945, the 85th held the Monte Grande sector of the winter defense line, with a crack German parachute division facing it. The stalemate was broken on April 18 when the Custer men swept through Gesso, Tignano, and Casalecchio, advanced into the Po plain, and dashed pell mell through disorganized enemy formations. The 85th flung itself across the Po River, though no bridges were available in its sector, on rafts, DUKWs, and anything else that would float. It moved quickly through Verona, crossed the now unoccupied Adige Line—last German defensive position in Italy—slashed into the Alps, and, by sealing off the Brenner Pass, trapped the remnants of the German Tenth Army, who surrendered en masse.
Even after the Germans gave up, the 85th wasn’t through. Its men uncovered millions of dollars’ worth of gold and valuable works of art, and released from imprisonment a group of international celebrities the Germans had hidden at Lago di Braies, in the Alps, including Martin Niemôller, Leon Blum, Kurt Schuschnigg, and Fritz Thyssen.
From Fighting Divisions, Kahn & McLemore, Infantry Journal Press, 1945-1946.
There are 58 soldiers of the 85th Infantry Division World War II still listed as missing in action.
|Private Irvin L. Allee 338th Infantry Regiment 10/25/1944|
|Private Robert E. Banghart 337th Infantry Regiment 11/08/1945|
|Technician Fifth Grade Vincent J. Bickel 337th Infantry Regiment 05/13/1944|
|Private First Class William E. Brabham 337th Infantry Regiment 10/15/1945|
|Private First Class Cloys F. Burnett 337th Infantry Regiment 10/25/1944|
|Private Elton E. Chason 337th Infantry Regiment 05/11/1944|
|Private First Class Frederick W. Cotton 337th Infantry Regiment 05/06/1944|
|Private First Class Ulice Dixon 339th Infantry Regiment 10/24/1945|
|Private Joseph A. Dombalo 337th Infantry Regiment 10/26/1944|
|Private Elwood C. Edwards 339th Infantry Regiment 10/23/1945|
|Sergeant Harold Fitzsimmons 337th Infantry Regiment 06/01/1944|
|Private Robert Flynn 337th Infantry Regiment 02/18/1946|
|Private First Class Arthur A. Ford 337th Infantry Regiment 05/12/1944|
|Private Paul Forman 337th Infantry Regiment 10/25/1944|
|Technician Fifth Grade Charles J. Fuller 337th Infantry Regiment 05/16/1944|
|Private Jose L. Garza 337th Infantry Regiment 06/04/1945|
|Staff Sergeant James R. Hearn 338th Infantry Regiment 10/20/1944|
|Private First Class William Helton 337th Infantry Regiment 05/15/1945|
|Private First Class Luther E. Hensley 337th Infantry Regiment 05/16/1945|
|Private Grady A. Hogan 337th Infantry Regiment 10/27/1945|
|Private William D. Hunter 337th Infantry Regiment 05/15/1945|
|Private First Class Ervin A. Hyatt 337th Infantry Regiment 06/01/1945|
|Private First Class Walter Janiak 339th Infantry Regiment 09/15/1945|
|Private First Class Robert H. Jaynes 337th Infantry Regiment 10/04/1945|
|Private Sammie Jones 337th Infantry Regiment 05/13/1945|
|Private First Class Lawrence H. Kahrer 339th Infantry Regiment 03/03/1944|
|Staff Sergeant John J. Koszalka 337th Infantry Regiment 06/01/1945|
|Private Harry Lawson 337th Infantry Regiment 11/08/1945|
|Private First Class William C. Leonard 338th Infantry Regiment 09/14/1944|
|Private Earl L. Littlefield 337th Infantry Regiment 11/08/1945|
|Private First Class Roy R. Long 337th Infantry Regiment 05/31/1944|
|Private Arthur P. Lynch 337th Infantry Regiment 10/26/1944|
|Private First Class John Marchesini 339th Infantry Regiment 10/23/1945|
|Private First Class William H. McKenzie 337th Infantry Regiment 05/12/1944|
|Private Leslie S. Miller 337th Infantry Regiment 06/04/1945|
|Sergeant William R. Mills 337th Infantry Regiment 10/28/1945|
|Private First Class Clell E. Morris 337th Infantry Regiment 05/14/1944|
|Private Joseph S. Nowakowski 337th Infantry Regiment 05/12/1944|
|Private Albert J. Oslosky 337th Infantry Regiment 05/14/1944|
|Private First Class Philip E. Palmer 337th Infantry Regiment 05/13/1944|
|Private First Class Cleaston A. Patterson 337th Infantry Regiment 05/15/1945|
|Private First Class Vincent Pecoraro 339th Infantry Regiment 10/23/1944|
|Private Charles F. Pfeifer 337th Infantry Regiment 10/26/1944|
|Private Michael Piscopiello 337th Infantry Regiment 04/12/1946|
|Technical Sergeant Albert J. Rackoski 337th Infantry Regiment 10/08/1944|
|Sergeant Ivan A. Rainosek 339th Infantry Regiment 10/24/1945|
|Private Andres B. Rocha 337th Infantry Regiment 05/13/1944|
|Private First Class John Salerno 337th Infantry Regiment 05/12/1944|
|Private First Class Hiram C. Shelton 337th Infantry Regiment 05/13/1944|
|Private Charles C. Smith 338th Infantry Regiment 09/15/1945|
|Private Joseph B. Smith 337th Infantry Regiment 06/01/1945|
|Private Frank A.J. Suchy 339th Infantry Regiment 09/15/1945|
|Private Floyd W. Taylor 337th Infantry Regiment 10/27/1944|
|Corporal Harry K. Touchtone 337th Infantry Regiment 10/28/1945|
|Staff Sergeant James V. Walley 337th Infantry Regiment 11/09/1945|
|Private Willard J. Walls 339th Infantry Regiment 10/21/1944|
|Private First Class John Yelcich 337th Infantry Regiment 05/13/1944|
|Private Sigmund V. Zaykowski 339th Infantry Regiment 03/11/1945|
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